Guest post written by Ryan Jenkins, co-founder and managing director of Wonderful Idea Co, an experimental studio that explores art, science and technology through making and tinkering. Ryan was a core member of the Tinkering Studio from 2009 to 2017 and is excited to return for a new project with the team to develop open-ended, unfacilitated (or lightly facilitated) tinkerable experiences using a wide range of tools and materials.
This post is also available on the Wonderful Idea Co blog.
Over the next several months, I’ll be partnering with my friends from the Tinkering Studio at the Exploratorium in San Francisco, California on a new project. Together we’ll be developing a collection of unfacilitated (or lightly facilitated) tinkering experiences (‘uftes’) that can take place on the museum floor. Some of these experiences are based on themes we’ve been working on during the pandemic like balance, construction and light/shadow play and others will give us a chance to revisit old topics with a new lens.
Some existing projects that meet the ‘ufte’ criteria that are currently at the museum include marble machines, circuit boards and animation station. Although creating new experiences is pretty tricky because facilitation is one of the core elements of any tinkering activity, we know it’s possible to have a robust collection of materials, prompts, examples and environments to support open-ended investigation, collaboration, intentionality and complexification.
From our initial conversations, some of the values for these tinkerable experiences that seem important are that they allow for the participant to make something unexpected, that people can see everyday materials used in new ways, that we connect to projects at home and make it possible to collaborate with others.
As part of the project, we’re exploring ways to work together and experiment with materials and tools while the Tinkering Studio team is in California and I’m in Germany. Although there will be moments to connect in person for an extended residency in the spring, most of the development will take place at a distance.
Although there are some disadvantages to working on R&D for a tinkering experience this way, it also can push the group to uncover a variety of materials to accomplish the same goal, clarify the values of the experience and involve more partners from around the world.
A couple weeks ago, we kicked off the project with a mini-residency in the Learning Studio for three days. In this short time we experimented with creating an audio/visual environment for one of our team members to join the prototyping session from home and played around with some materials that can lead to the first ‘ufte’ focused on balancing structures.
For the balancing based ‘ufte’, we were inspired by a toothpick/cardboard construction that was shared for a tinkering@home prompt. We liked this idea because it clearly gets across the idea of changing parts, making small adjustments and developing an intuitive feeling for equilibrium.
As we started thinking about developing a version of this activity as a unfacilitated experience, we knew we had to make the parts be robust/reusable, figure out how to show how the materials can be used in an intuitive way and open up possibilities for wide walls (or the ability to explore different pathways).
Steph Muscat, a learning designer in the Tinkering Studio group, joined us from her home where she has a mini workshop set up. In the learning studio, Sebastian, Luigi and I set up a large multi directional mic in the center of the room and invited her to join us in a zoom call.
We had one camera showing the entire workspace and another that we could approach to chat or share ideas. We also beamed Steph onto the large monitor in the space so that we could more easily see what she was working on at home. This system helped make it feel like we were working together and during the reflection meeting we all mentioned that we felt like we tried things that we wouldn’t have explored if we were on our own.
There were two different materials sets that we explored during the exploration period. Steph worked on a system for PVC pipes and connectors and in the Learning Studio, we build a cardboard/wooden system modeled on the cardboard/toothpick version. With both of these experiences, we wanted to scale up the ‘at home’ tinkering project to make it more dramatic, sturdy and collaborative.
One aspects of the design that we experimented with was how to make the parts easily adjustable but also be able to stick in place. We used two main methods of attaching and detaching the pieces. The PVC version made use of existing connector pieces and joints which are strong and flexible. For the wooden pieces we drilled a hole a tiny bit bigger than the dowel and worked to slide the pieces in place. It’s a challenge inherent in many tinkering experiences where you want to have the ability to quickly troubleshoot and iterate, but also have the parts work together in a systematic and intentional manner to realize an idea. We didn’t get it working perfectly but it’s a good goal to keep in mind.
Another question we started to think about was how to add weights to the sculptures. One of the most interesting types of balancing sculpture has a large collection of light materials extended on one side and a smaller heavy piece on the other. After many iterations, we are currently got to this design for a piece with a hook to attach weights to the bottom and a platform to attach weights or characters to the top.
As we have been working on at home tinkering experiences, story-telling and narrative have become more and more of a central theme. Some of the ideas we had about including more character and imagination to the project included adding little mini-figs or plastic toys to the structures or using giant googley eyes and feathers to turn abstract kinetic sculptures into whimsical monsters.
One more element that we are trying to address is how to avoid a colossal failure that interrupt the tinkering process by having all of the hard work destroyed in a fall. Although we appreciate frustration in a tinkering activity, we want that to be in service of the learner’s ideas and not break the flow of tinkering completely. Steph created a fixed point so the balancing sculpture can tilt but not fall and Sebastian and I sketched out ideas for a strap or lock to keep the project from falling while people are building.
Over the next several months we’ll be engaging with these and other questions and challenges as we refine this new collection of tinkerable experiences. I’m excited to have the chance to collaborate again with the Tinkering Studio team and collaboratively develop new projects that can be used in the museum and shared with schools makerspaces and libraries around the world.
The LEGO Playful Learning Museum Network initiative is made possible through generous support from the LEGO Group.